Thru You Princess Documents a Singer’s Rise to YouTube Fame
Save for the staff of Last Week Tonight, irresistible babies, and crafty felines, few have unearthed an algorithm for creating viral videos. The popularity of these quick snapshots of humanity—from the Foo Fighters Rickrolling the Westboro Baptist Church to a disgruntled reporter quitting her job on-air—often has little to do with ability. Timing and topicality is everything. But so is serendipity. As the Wild West of modern life, the internet often seems to operate without any rhyme or reason. Perhaps its incalculable modus operandi is the web’s greatest asset. It’s unpredictable, untamable.
All the same, life seems fair when talent goes recognized. Enter Samantha “Princess” Shaw, a New Orleans singer whose soulful voice was discovered with the release of “Thru You Too — Give It Up” on YouTube. Prior to its release, Shaw had been steadily honing her craft on her channel to no avail. Her videos hardly broke a hundred views. Subscribers were no more than a few dozen. It wasn’t until she got help from Kutiman, an Israeli mashup artist, that Shaw gained the attention—and YouTube hits—she long deserved.
Aware of this story’s inherent cinematic potential, documentarian Ido Haar made it a mission to track down Shaw and bring her together with the man who radically altered the course of her life. His movie Thru You Princess is that journey, filmed and alive, radiating with vivacity and affection for its subjects.
From the moment WIRED sat down with the documentary’s stars and creator following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s clear the triumvirate—Princess Shaw, Haar, and Kutiman—are still taken aback by the events unfolding around them. The rapturous applause by audiences, the curious journalists asking questions, and the hustle and bustle of a city showing hundreds of movies, including theirs—it’s a lot to take in. For most, the surreal nature of this industry is lost, rendered normal by those who spend their days in the spotlight. But with this film, innocence is still intact for everyone involved, and it’s a wonderful, uncommon sensation. And so we begin talking.
The Origins of Thru You Princess
For those who don’t understand YouTube (see: this writer), we start with Kutiman explaining how he stumbled upon Princess Shaw. “I go through a lot of YouTube videos and somewhere on page 36, she was there.” Their first collaboration was on the aforementioned “Give It Up,” which picked up traction after being written about in The New York Times. “In the ‘Give it Up’ song I had already assembled a piano and drum loop, and was searching for some voice to fit this,” Kutiman says. “When I found Princess … it was just magic.” From there he started looking more into her videos, which range from incredibly musical to intensely personal. As for Haar, who knew Kutiman years before the start of this film, he was “curious about who are those musicians and singers who aren’t in the project. Maybe we can find out their story.” Once Shaw agreed to meet Haar (at first she was understandably “suspicious” of his intentions), Thru You Princess was born.
A Meeting of Musical Influences
Listening to Shaw and Kutiman’s unique sounds, it’s challenging to pinpoint who or what has inspired their work. Shaw says that “John Legend, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Kings of Leon, Elton John, and the Bee Gees” have made an indelible mark on her work. Kutiman then unexpectedly admits, “I was really ignorant about music. I grew up in this place with no internet and no record shops, so I discovered James Brown at 24.” To be fair, some spend their whole lives without singing and dancing to Brown’s inimitably funky tracks. “At 24, my friend gave me a box of CDs, and everything was great,” Kutiman remembers. “Lately, I’m into Coltrane and this kind of music. I just put something on YouTube and let the auto-play do its thing.”
On Sampling vs. Stealing
Since Pharrell and Robin Thicke had to pay out more than $7 million in settlements for ripping off Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” on “Blurred Lines” (remember that song?), there’s been an ongoing conversation about sampling music versus stealing music. So, as people who do incorporate the sounds of other artist’s work into their own, what do Shaw and Kutiman think of the debate? “If you’re sampling somebody’s music, keep the music respectful,” says Shaw. She elaborates on what it means to be respectful: “If you’re going to sample Marvin Gaye, for instance, know how to sample Marvin Gaye. His music is beautiful. You don’t sample it and start talking about ‘backing that ass up,’ you know what I mean?” Basically, Robin Thicke is not worthy of using sounds created by Gaye.
“I don’t know much about the law, but I definitely think it needs to be rewritten, it’s kind of old fashioned,” Kutiman says. “I think it’s kind of ridiculous to try to stop [sampling], it’s like trying to stop humanity.”
If Thru You Princess is any indication, all three of the artists involved want to have a career away from the documentary. “I want to record and sing and just keep making feel-good music,” says Shaw. “I like to bring emotion out of people, no matter if it’s good or bad. It’s a connection you have with people.” Kutiman echoes her sentiments, “In the future I want to creatively just do my thing, to be able to see myself.” Haar begins to get emotional. “Usually, when you finish a film you are happy, it’s such a journey,” he says, “but I’m really sad these two years are over.” Shaw and Kutiman turn to their director, and promise this isn’t the end. “I so enjoyed going to New Orleans, I so enjoyed editing the film, so enjoyed the music,” Haar continues. “I really feel this happiness.”
Grappling with Luck
Before the advent of the internet, and more specifically YouTube, it’s unlikely this interaction between Kutiman and Princess Shaw could’ve occurred. There’s a certain inexplicable beauty to this situation—forcing everyone in the room to contemplate why they happened to amble into each other’s lives. “When you think everything happens for a reason, and then something bad happens, you’re like, ‘What? Why?’ And if you just think life is random, then you’re like, ‘OK, it’s random,’” says Kutiman. “But, now I believe everything happens for a reason.” Optimism permeates our dialogue as the sun shines through the window. It’s one of those vignettes words can’t encapsulate. And then Shaw makes a bold declaration: “I think everything happens for a reason and people are put in your life for a reason.” There’s an anticipatory pause. Shaw has us captivated. “Everybody has a reason in the season. And I think right now this is our damn season.”
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